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Jul 20, 2010

Angel or demon?

If you are wondering what the fuss is all about over Mario Balotelli, you probably have not been paying too much attention to Italian soccer in the past three seasons.

Despite being left out - no, make that ignored - by Marcello Lippi for the World Cup, Balotelli is probably Italy's most exciting young talent at the moment and a certain member of new Azzurri coach Cesare Prandelli's squads for the upcoming Euro 2012 qualifiers.

Still 19, he's already a three-time Scudetto winner, as a contributor rather than a passenger in at least two of those seasons, and a Champions League winner, although he did not set foot on the Santiago Bernabeu pitch in the final last May.

What is most striking about Balotelli, though, is that you simply cannot avoid having an opinion on him. There are no grey areas, it's either saint or sinner, angel or demon. Even amongst Inter fans.

Those who hailed him as one of their own as soon he was put on display at the San Siro, sit alongside those who castigated him whem he threw his shirt on the ground in disgust after the Champions League semi-final first leg against Barcelona. His less than inspired appearance as a sub was allegedly followed in the dressing room by a scuffle with some team-mates who had taken a huge amount of exception to a player who was diverting attention from a great night for the Nerazzurri.

This came just a couple of months after Balotelli had been left out of the squad after yet another 'misunderstanding' [you can choose other words, of course, depending on your feelings] with Jose Mourinho over whether the player actually had the flu on a day he played an indifferent game.

He was left home when Inter travelled to London for their season-defining win over Chelsea and, a few days later, Marco Materazzi remarked how Mourinho's decision to draw a line in the sand with his young player brought the squad together on the eve of an important stretch of matches.

In a sense, Balotelli is an unwilling link to a recent, troubled Inter past. The club that was known as dysfunctional - unable for years to come up with a formula for getting as much as the sum of their parts out of the players - was perhaps a natural stage for a player whose mere appearance makes him stand out in the often immature scenery of Italian soccer.

His flamboyance, dress sense and love for fast cars have made him a constant presence in the spotlight, a rarity for the Italian media who normally turn the other way whenever information about the many extra-curricular activities of Serie A players become known.

Tales of these activities, which are sometimes so funny and bizarre you can hardly believe them, live on as a matter of dinner conversation with colleagues and help fill long road journeys, but nothing more, and rarely find their way to a newspaper or magazine. Unless Balotelli and a few others - Francesco Totti, perhaps, or Marco Borriello, all of whom have celebrity girlfriends - are involved.

Balotelli's emergence as a great player and a media darling reflects his personal history. Born in Palermo to Ghanaian parents who abandoned him at the hospital soon after, he was adopted at age two by a family living near Brescia, in northern Italy. Despite the huge numbers of immigrants living in that part of the country, a young man with dark skin and a distinctly local accent was always bound to stand out, and Mario did in more ways than one. On the football pitch, he immediately showed good instincts and skills, even at age five, playing at the local church playground - the now neglected way generations of Italians before him had started their football careers.

He spent a few days on trial with Barcelona, but despite scoring eight goals in practice matches and displaying his early promise, the Catalans never came calling again and Inter beat other leading clubs when signing him in late-August 2006, with Roberto Mancini giving him his debut.

Having amassed 20 goals in 59 top flight appearances - which have featured solo runs, free-kicks, headers, tap-ins, shots on the turn - his career thus far has been built with an attitude that was always bound to elicit a response from fans, opponents (remember how Totti chased him and tried to take him out in the Italian Cup final last May?) and, as already noted, team-mates and coaches.

It is sometimes a chicken-and-egg dilemma: has Balotelli been the target of horrible chants because he looks brash, or is the other way around, is it his way of confronting the racists?

Is his exhilarating way of playing football the result of an amount of skill that seems eager to burst out, yet sometimes leads to languid, infuriating displays? You will have as many questions as people who show, depending on their level of affection, scepticism and interest in Balotelli. Mourinho, while criticising his modest defensive contribution in a match against Roma last year, remarked how Mario "will age me prematurely. He will make me visit a psychiatrist".

Samuel Eto'o tried to play mentor to him many times last season, but was left unimpressed when Balotelli, having being fouled by a Palermo player inside the area, tried to take the penalty himself instead of giving it to the Cameroon forward, who was the designated penalty-taker (they ended up scoring a couple of goals each, by the way).

Whether he joins Manchester City and his mentor Mancini or not, he's already written a small chapter of his personal history in England, although few will remember this. In the summer of 2007 he scored in the pre-season tournament at the Emirates Stadium, and that was perhaps the first time fans who were not familiar with him from his early days saw his peculiar goal celebration, which is basically no celebration at all. Typically, he once said he feels scoring goals comes naturally to him so there's no reason to make a fuss over them, or act like he's never been there before.

A few months after the North London epiphany, he travelled with the rest of the squad to Sheffield, where the Nerazzurri played a friendly match with Sheffield FC as a celebration of the oldest club in the world's 150th anniversary. Inter, for whom Materazzi was playing his first game back after a severe hamstring injury, won 5-2 and Balotelli scored a couple before being taken off.

Tougher challenges will appear in his sight if he joins Manchester City, but I cannot help going back to that November evening in Sheffield and the words one of the Inter directors uttered in a local pub: ''In a few years, this young man will either be a world class player or disappear from sight and spend his Sundays playing lower division football. It's all in his head.''

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